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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Milner


Three months ago, the world shifted as people everywhere tried to learn how to exist under shelter-at-home conditions. Many of us went through various stages of grief as we wrapped our heads around the “new normal” - and how much do we all hate that phrase now? - and strove to believe the unbelievable. Tethered to the ground, wings clipped, dancers struggled to keep their inner artists alive while simultaneously facing the reality of less-than-ideal training circumstances and a vastly uncertain future.

Some have compared this time to cocooning, likening dancers’ eventual return to the stage to a triumphant bursting forth from a chrysalis, a caterpillar-turned-butterfly appearing more beautiful and resilient than ever. I am sure people have clung to that idea, and the thought that this limbo, this anxiety-filled time, will produce great fruit has gotten more than a few people through some rather ink-dark days. And with restrictions easing in many places, people are asking:

What happens next?

How do we return to life-as-before? When can we confidently dance with a full company without a mask? When will we feel safe working intimate partnering work? Is it possible to go back to dance emotionally whole, unafraid, unhindered by uncertainty?

What happens next?

Nobody knows.

Listen, we’re all just guessing here. There’s no “well the last time this happened we just . . .” because this has never happened before. The Spanish Flu pandemic has much to teach us, but when to resume international touring schedules and how best to de-contaminate marley are not on that list. We don’t know how long recovered patients are immune, or how this virus will morph next, or what the long-term effects of dancing in a mask might be. So let’s acknowledge that, aside from basic safety guidelines issued by our governments, we really have no idea what we’re doing here.

Which, as crazy as it sounds, might make you feel a little bit better. Because re-integration is not a one-size-fits-all process.

Ballet studios are returning to classes. Some are wearing masks, some aren’t, some are highly restricting the class size, some are insisting privates only - everyone’s making their best guess. Some will be right and some will be wrong and all of them are trying their best. It’s up to you to figure out your comfort level and needs.

I remember when my family first went into lock down in March. For a week or so we were in stunned limbo: I hadn’t moved to online teaching, my kids weren’t doing online school, and everyone just hunkered down with nothing from “before” to do. And in the midst of the fear and worry and gut-gnawing anxiety about the future, I found this swaddled time with lots of family and little outside responsibility to be weirdly beautiful. My job was very simple - stay inside, figure out a way to get food and pay the bills, love on my family and keep them safe. It was so cut-and-dried, and I have a distinct memory of me thinking: “I’m going to look back on this as the easy time.”

Not because I loved the uncertainty, or wasn’t worried about the dozens of friends I personally have who’ve wrestled with this disease, but because choices were very minimal and life was black and white for a time.

As we re-open in my small corner of the world, life is less black and white. I CAN go back to teaching in a studio; with two high-risk people in my house, should I? Should I allow my daughters to dance with their friends? Will keeping them home after most have returned instill in them a sense of fear of the world? How do we step out with bravery but not foolhardiness? We’re all writing our own how-to manuals one page at a time, but I know it’ll involve a lot of grace.

And as we emerge into this new world, we ourselves are not unchanged. We are fields lying fallow, unused for a season but resting. And when it’s plowed and planted again, the earth will be more fertile, more full of potential, than ever before. For some of you dear ones, the fruit you bear may not look the same.

And that’s ok.

I’ve seen dancers buckle up and dig deep into their technical issues, addressing flexibility/agility/muscular dysfunction/bad technique so diligently that they’re honestly better dancers now than they were before. I’ve seen retired dancers weep quiet tears of joy after taking online barre for the first time in years, re-connecting with a long-lost love. One former professional wrote to me after I gave an online ballet class and said, “Thank you for reminding me that I love ballet.” It’s one of the nicest things anyone’s said to me, and to see that door in someone’s life be re-opened because of this is a beautiful thing. But I’ve seen other dancers wrestle with whether or not they even want to return to dance. Distance from the studio has brought some clarity for them, and as they process the physical toll or the price being paid mentally they’re deciding it’s time to move on. And that’s beautiful too.

You are not the same now as you were three months ago. You are a different person - perhaps iron-sharpened in your commitment to dancing, perhaps morphing into who you’ll be for your next season of life that may not contain dance. You will emerge from this in your own time, in your own way. Not ready to fly yet? That’s ok. Did you know that butterflies leave their chrysalis and can’t fly right away? They have to wait for their wings to dry, and if they try too soon the wings will tear and they’ll die. Everyone’s wings dry at a different pace.

If you’re jogging in place at the starting gate, ready to get out there, go my lovely and enjoy yourself. Heed basic protocols, and also remember every moment of stepping back into the studio for the first time. I imagine it will be profoundly moving and I wish I could see all of these moments because I know I’d cry like a baby at each one.

If you’re not ready emotionally or health-wise or don’t think it’s the right time yet, then stay where you are my beauty. Lay on your rock and dry your wings. You’ll be ready to fly when it’s time.

Whatever your “next” will be, it will be glorious and you will be ready.

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